Last week I heard a song on the radio I hadn’t heard in years. It was the 1993, release of a song called “Rock ‘n’ roll Lifestyle” by the band Cake. Among many questions posed by the singer, in the latter half of the composition, the song asks:
Aging black leather and hospital bills
And tatoo removal and dozens of pills
Your liver pays dearly now for youthful magic moments
But rock on completely with some brand-new components
Now, how do you afford your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?
Hearing this song reminded me of an experience I had (coincidentally in 1993) that had an unexpected but lasting impact on me.
As I have written about many times before, in 1993 I worked in the marketing department of a company called Crest Audio. Crest was a manufacturer of professional sound equipment in Paramus, NJ. Paramus is a mere twelve miles from New York City.
All year round, but more often in the summer, we would head out and meet up with all the tours that came through the greater New York performance venues. We would meet with the roadies, engineers and other professionals that used our products, and bring them clean Crest Audio t-shirts. We would gather real-world complements and complaints about our products, using this data to feed our continuous improvement process.
Sometimes we’d just get tickets to the show, but more often than not we’d be granted “all-access” to the backstage area where we would get to meet the band, drink their beer and watch the show from the wings.
For a few hours we would literally get to live the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” and we got paid to do it.
Sometimes a band would come through town that wasn’t using any of our equipment at all, but with all our experience and connections we would sometimes get access to these shows too. May 18th 1993, was one of those days.
It was around 4:00pm and I was sitting at my desk, working on a user manual for a mixing console. Right behind my desk was a back door to the hallway that hardly anyone used because of how close it was to my desk chair. Because of this I was surprised when I heard a whisper coming from the doorway.
I turned my chair, and there in the doorway cracked open only two inches was a sliver of the face of our Touring Sound Sales Director, Greg McVeigh. I replied to whatever he had whispered with a questioning look. He silently motioned for me to come out into the hallway – I obeyed.
Once in the hall, Greg explained that a buddy of his was on tour with INXS, they were playing at The Academy in Manhattan that night, and he had passes waiting for him at the stage door. He had called me into the hallway because he didn’t want to go alone, but he also didn’t want anyone else in marketing coming along. Greg is a great guy, but he is a bit of a curmudgeon – on this point he will not disagree, he’d probably just grunt a little.
I told him that I would have to run home and let my dog out, but that I was up for the adventure. He asked if I would drive because he did not like driving in the city – curmudgeon indeed.
I took care of my business and around 5:30 we headed into the city.
At the moment he asked, I managed to keep my excitement to myself, but I was totally psyched to see INXS. Much like Genesis and solo Peter Gabriel were the music of my high school years, INXS was omnipresent for my four years of college.
The rock anthem “Don’t Change” from the 1982 release “Shabooh Shoobah” was cranked with regularity in the dorm halls of Lehigh University, but their album called “Kick,” released in October 1987 (two months into our freshman year) may as well have been the official soundtrack of the class of 1991.
Apparently the brass at Atlantic Records hated the album, so much so that they offered the band $1 million to go back to Australia and make another record. The band insisted that this was the record they intended to make and according to Wikipedia:
Despite Atlantic’s protests, Kick was released in October 1987 and provided the band with worldwide popularity, it peaked at No. 1 in Australia, No. 3 on the US Billboard 200, No. 9 in UK, and No. 15 in Austria. It was an upbeat, confident album that yielded four Top 10 US singles, “New Sensation”, “Never Tear Us Apart”, “Devil Inside” and No. 1 “Need You Tonight”. “Need You Tonight” peaked No. 2 on the UK charts, No. 3 in Australia, and No. 10 in France. They toured heavily behind the album throughout 1987 and 1988.
The day Greg whispered through the marketing door, I had yet to see INXS live so saying yes was a no-brainer. Sure I was two years out of school, but to relive all those seminal songs live, loud and proud was going to be amazing.
Greg and I crossed the George Washington Bridge, navigated to midtown, parked the car and walked to the theatre on 43rd. “The Acedemy” was an old Broadway theatre reconfigured for live music performance. It is now the “Foxwoods Theatre” and houses the Spiderman musical.
We went to the backstage door where, as expected, we were on “the list.” We received our passes and Greg had a brief conversation with his buddy who was on the tour.
We had a couple of hours to kill before the show started so we went to find dinner. We walked into a little Italian place on a side street no more than a block from the theatre. Our show passes were clearly visible, hanging on lanyards around our necks. The waiter pointed to Greg’s pass and says (in a thick Italian accent) “oh, you-a-with the IN-XS show; you get-a-one appetizer and a one entree. You get a salad, but a-no dessert.” We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and ordered accordingly. I believe some red wine was involved as well.
When the check came our dreams of free dinner were dashed when they asked for our meal tickets (which of course we did not have). We killed a little more time and then went back to the theater. We found seats up in the balcony and on came INXS; there was no opening act.
The lights came up, the guitars began to scream and the band’s front man Michael Hutchence came on stage, but something was wrong.
After about thirty seconds it was clear that the lead singer was terribly drunk. Making matters worse the mix was awful, and the sound system was too loud for such a small venue. I like loud music but when you find yourself covering your ears to reduce the physical pain you are experiencing, there’s a good chance you’re not going to enjoy the show.
After three horrible songs, Greg turned to me and said, “had enough?” In any other circumstance I would have said that he was just being “Grumpy Greg” but his words were spot on. Not only had I “had enough,” I was crushed that this band who’s music was foundational to (at that point) the four most important years of my life, had come on stage and ruined everything.
As the fourth song poured into the bleeding ears of the audience, Greg and I left the theatre and walked back to the car.
The lead singer of INXS, Michael Hutchence, was certainly not a hero of mine but his music had been an important part of my life. His behavior on stage that night was one of my first lessons in difference between the shine of fame and the reality behind it. It was clear that Mr. Hutchence was troubled, and sadly two years later, on the morning of November 22, 1997, he was found dead in Room 524 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Double Bay, Sydney. Michael Hutchence was only 37.
So, “how do you afford your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?” That day in New York the lesson began to sink in, but when I heard about the death of Michael Hutchence the answer became clear.
How do you afford your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle? It turns out – sometimes you can’t.
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